I recently came across The New York Times article “How the Internet Is Saving Culture, Not Killing It,” by Fahrad Manjoo. Being that I’m fascinated by the idea that the Internet is the manifestation of consciousness and culture is the expression of it, I was immediately intrigued by an analysis of the relationship between the two.
The article begins by acknowledging how business sectors in the past few decades have suffered at the expense of the Internet, particularly the music industry, cable subscriptions, newspapers, and the independent bookstores. Essentially, the Internet taught an entire generation, my generation, that “content was not something you really had to pay for.” While our parents woke up in the mornings to collect their paid subscriptions to newspapers and purchased physical CDs from Best Buy, we were provided LimeWire, YouTube, and Facebook to find and share anything that we wanted—for free. As a result of this “assault” on business, digital content companies were forced into surviving on ad-based business models. Not only were these models a failure because people were not buying content they could acquire for free, but it slowly killed culture—only giving a platform to content that would sell ads (“clickbait”).
Although the Internet pulled the rug from under cultural enterprises, there have been some upsides; the first is that digital technology has allowed new voices to create culture with ease. While the article cites YouTube, blogging, and podcasts as some of the most obvious catalysts of the culture shock of the past 20 years, I must admit that, while I am a huge proponent of easy entry, I do miss the simpler days of TRL and 106 and Park. Completely acknowledging that just over a decade ago news and entertainment was force fed by leading media organizations such as these, I suppose I have a sense of a nostalgia for when culture was universally trusted from a select few mediums. Pop culture trends were easier to keep abreast of and we knew which news outlets could be trusted. But while this made life feel simpler, in hindsight, life was just more so dictated, and by an elite few—a life which I do not prefer.
The second upside of the Internet is that the resulting influx of new participants in culture has now saturated the market so much that people are now beginning to pay for online content. In my view, it is because in the era of “fake news” and overwhelming amounts of content, people only want to entertain content that they like, trust, and is concentrated in one location. I wonder, however, whether this will recreate a hierarchy of media elites offering subscriptions determining culture. If such a hierarchy is to be recreated, it would most likely include those platforms that survived the introduction of the Internet, but it would include those content producers that were provided a voice as a result of it too. The recreated hierarchy would afford a much more diverse and grass roots culture because it was essentially created by the people—not force fed by the elite.
As stated in Manjoo’s article, the rise in subscriptions is evidenced by the growing popularity of subscription-based media platforms like Amazon Prime, Netflix, HBO, Spotify and Apple Music. People are also paying for more niche market, smaller-audience, and less-mainstream content, as well subscribing to podcasters, YouTube channels, comedians, novelists, comic book artists, and even the news. More specifically, the New York Times reported that it has more than three million print and digital subscriptions; Apple made $2.7 billion in subscriptions from its App Store in 2016—a 74% increase from 2015; Netflix acquired seven million more subscribers in the final quarter of 2016, making its total about 94 million subscribers; Spotify’s subscriber count increased from 30 million to 50 million just over the past year; and Apple Music has acquired about 20 million subscribers in just one year and a half. With music and music culture probably being my greatest infatuation, these music subscriptions intrigued me the most.
Even with the arguably liberal culture of the Information Age, major content platforms have gained the reputation of treating artists poorly. This is probably because within this newly saturated market, they must still make a profit and recover from previous years. However, because artists are looking to these platforms as an escape from the “bad deals” of the entertainment industry of decades’ past, these platforms are causing artists to look for a new escape just the same. And they are turning to social media. Through mediums such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, artists can sell merchandise, promote and release their content, and even make a “paycheck” based on the donations from their fans through sites like Patreon. Artists like Chance the Rapper are gleaming examples of how the Internet has provided this “alternative arrangement.”
As the Internet continues to evolve with our thoughts, major content platforms’ business models will be forced to evolve with it in order to be an appealing medium for content providers to distribute their work. Because of the ease of access the Internet provides, my prediction is that the amount of content providers is only going to increase, potentially making online subscriptions that much more popular in order for consumers to weed through the unappealing content, “fake news,” and find a concentration of content they prefer. However, platforms must treat artists better, especially financially, in order for them to want to distribute their content with them, thereby making the masses want to subscribe. And if the masses do, not only would an increase in subscriptions be in the platforms’ best financial interest, but it may result in less piracy of digital content by subscribers too.
Nelson Adams IV is a J.D. candidate, 2018, at NYU School of Law.